By Tim Milosch
There is deep significance in how a society treats its dead. If history is to be considered, state funerals have played a significant role in public life. Western history and thought has found some of its most profound rhetoric in memorializing the dead. From Thucydides’ recounting of Pericles’ funeral oration, to Ronald Reagan’s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts, extracting meaning from the death of individuals in service to the state plays an essential role in reminding the body politic of its telos – its character and the good it seeks to pursue.
In the American context, what happens in a state funeral is unique, profound, and deserving of our participation. For a moment, public and private spheres overlap; church and state reach across the wall of separation; and the individual mourns with the nation in the most fundamental affirmation of human equality: we all die, and we all desire to be comforted when alive and remembered when dead.
For the Christian citizen, this may raise a troubling tension akin to being asked to burn incense to Caesar. Why give rosy-lensed praise to those who represent the far from perfect institutions of government? However, in the space provided by state funerals, the Christian citizen has a unique window in which the compassion of Christ may be displayed as we mourn with those who mourn. But, we cannot do so without entering as fully as we may into the City of Man and the care of its dead. How might we do that?
What I Found in a House of Mourning
Ecclesiastes 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”
The Preacher’s encouragement to prioritize a gathering around the death of an individual over a gathering around a meal is instructive when thinking about the civic role of funerals, particularly state funerals. A recent example, the state funeral of George H.W. Bush, provides a current and relevant illustration of the wisdom to be gained from our presence in such a house of mourning.
I watched the entire funeral service with a classroom full of undergraduate students. One of the things that stood out, and was commented on, was the silence that seeped out of the National Cathedral and into my classroom as the attendees awaited the arrival of the hearse bearing Bush’s body. A few of my students noted the awkwardness of such silence. Perhaps that is the one of the first things we lose when we do not attend the house of mourning – the ability to sit in silence and comprehend the end of all things. Our own ends. Perhaps we fear silence in our distracted age because it symbolizes that end.
Beyond insight into our societal relationship to death, what I was surprised to discover in my watching of the funeral was my own emotion as I moved from being a passive observer to that of engaged participant despite the fact that this was no man that I had any personal contact with. Bush 41’s presidency began and ended before I was 9 and, like many, I viewed the event from afar. Yet, I still found tears in my eyes as this great man and citizen was remembered. Why? Partly, it was the all too real reminder that a unique generation is passing from this earth. For many, the Greatest Generation (those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War 2) is the epitome of civic duty and citizenship. They understood self-sacrifice and national service. Theirs is a hard won wisdom we seem to be desperately in need of in our highly atomized and polarized culture.
I keely felt that sense of personal and civic loss when my own grandparents passed away, but I was surprised to find myself feeling a similar sense of dual loss as the funeral service progressed. I saw that loss painfully visible on the faces and in the nonverbals of the gathered friends and family, and it was verbalized in the moving eulogies. State funerals can instruct us in the act of mourning and remembrance. In reflecting on such a loss, we find a challenge to not just value the elder generations still living among us, but to also actively seek out their collected wisdom.
Additionally, in a time when it seems little is shared, the poignancy of current and former presidents and party leaders sitting shoulder to shoulder staring at the evidence of their own mortality was a powerful image of the shared experience of life and death inherent in human community. In that, I felt a dawning sense of shared loss between myself, the late president’s family and friends, and the country as a whole, which helped me to consider the role I am called to play as a Christian in ministering to others in the midst of loss.
Entering the House of Mourning
Thus, in the state funeral of George H.W. Bush we are given a vivid reminder of the most basic common cause a community of human beings can share: the celebration of life in its flourishing and finishing.
For Christian citizens of a country, the state funeral of a national leader offers an invitation to “go to the house of mourning” and “lay… to heart” what wisdom is to be gained there in reflecting on the end of man, even a great man. However, I wonder how many heed that invitation, and may even consider such a state funeral to be something to wave off, or even criticized?
Citizens should attend to these national funerals, but Christian citizens should especially do so. In such places we can enter into the house of mourning and gain wisdom from reflecting on the brevity of life, the need for meaning, the connectedness of our human experience, and from that shared experience, the shared need for a shared solution, a gospel of grace. More soberly, too, we are presented with a stark contrast of the hope of resurrection for the redeemed, and the fear of destruction for the damned. But how can we minister in such contexts if we are discomfited and unfamiliar with them?
If you have yet to watch the funeral of George H.W. Bush, I’d invite you to do so. Lay aside any ideological lens or preconceived notions and sit like so many political adversaries did, in common company. Consider what wisdom is to be found in the house of mourning and how you too might “lay it to heart.”
Tim Milosch is a PhD student in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests are in the areas of international relations, political philosophy, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, and citizenship.